There's something admirable in Darius Rucker's mission to prove he's more than the Dylan of the frat-boy generation. After years as the darker-skinned front man of the otherwise vanilla party band Hootie and the Blowfish, Rucker is branching out. With the release of his solo debut, Back to Then, he's going for a blacker flavor.
No more singing songs that help white guys get girls drunk at mixers. By hooking up with Hidden Beach Recordings, the same contemporary soul label that introduced Jill Scott to the world, Rucker hopes to gain some credibility as a performer who sings songs that can help black guys get girls drunk as well.
But the problem with this is, well, come on, it's freakin' Hootie! The idea of a neo-soul Hootie is a little befuddling, not to mention it reeks of desperation. If you went to a D'Angelo concert and he started performing a medley of his favorite selections from Cracked Rear View and a few Counting Crows snippets, wouldn't you be scratching your head?
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But back to Back to Then. On it, the newly minted neo-soul troubadour scores and fumbles in equal measure. He certainly called in the heavy artillery to make his nu-soul debut a little more authentic: Much of the album is produced by DJ Jazzy Jeff's A Touch of Jazz crew, including Andre "Dirty" Harris and Vidal Davis, the same cats who have helped many an artist (Scott, Musiq and Glenn Lewis) deliver a solid debut.
On the best tracks, Rucker assumes the role of an on-the-prowl bad boy. Catchy songs like "Wild One," "Sometimes I Wonder" (a duet with Scott), "Butterfly" and "One More Night" use his gravelly voice to its fullest potential. Rucker's church-bred voice has always had an underlying devilishness to it, so hearing him get into for-mature-audiences mode feels right. But when that same voice waxes earnest and introspective, when it turns to soft ballads like the title track and "This Is My World," it sounds lost. When he teams up with Snoop Dogg on "Sleeping on My Bed," the lanky rapper manages to out-sing him. And Rucker's cover of Al Green's "I'm So Glad You're Mine" is straight-up blasphemy.
Still, you gotta give it up to Rucker for his moxie. He could've done something easier for his solo debut, something more suited to his singing abilities, like a country or gospel album. Back to Then at least shows that Hootie can be a down-ass brotha.